Will the real Jesus please stand up? (part 4)

All of which begs the question: was Jesus a real person who became a mythical celestial being within 3 or 4 years of his death or was he a mythical celestial being to begin with who was historicised within about fifty or sixty years of his creation?

The time scales are important. Christians today argue that Jesus can’t possibly have been an imagined being because fifty to sixty years represents an insufficient period for him to have transitioned into a fully realised historical figure. Yet this is precisely what we see between Paul and others’ visions of Christ and the writing of Mark and Matthew’s gospels. (Richard Carrier makes the case that the writer of the former was cognizant of the fact he was not writing history but allegory. If so, Matthew’s gospel, circa xxx, is the first to depict Jesus as an actual person.)

As related by Paul, his vision of the heavenly Christ followed those of Cephas, the twelve and 500 others. His experience is usually dated to between 34 and 37CE. These visions appear not to be rooted in reality. Paul writes at length about his Lord Jesus Christ yet shows no knowledge about the life, relationships, teaching or miracles of the character who later appears in the gospels. His Christ exists only in a celestial heaven where Paul believes his sacrifice also took place there.

Christians argue instead that Christ was a real person. He lived, preached and died in a specific geographical area (though the gospel writers don’t all agree where this was) at a particular time (they don’t agree on this either). After his resurrection he ascended to a heaven believed to be above the sky. He became a spiritual entity at this point, having lived a real life on Earth. Later Christians would argue he resumed the role of celestial being. After his ascension he began communicating with mortals attuned to him using visions and dreams; hence Paul’s and others’ revelatory experiences.

But wait. If fifty years is too short a period for a celestial Christ to be seen as a real person, then 4 years or less – the time between Jesus’ supposed ascension and Paul experiencing him in his head – is even shorter. If we’re judging how probable either transition is in terms of the time it took, the Christian preference of 3-4 years is by far the less likely.

A transition is involved either way: from a wholly spiritual entity to human, or from human to a celestial being. The first, taking about 50 years, is too short a time for Christians. They prefer the second, which involves only 4 years. It also entails supernatural intervention, with God required to engineer the transition from the human to the quasi-divine.

Taking Occam’s razor to the evidence – Paul’s genuine letters, the other early letters and the book of Hebrews – it is clear the transition happened the other way round. Christ was originally an imagined spiritual being, envisaged by Paul and others. The spiritual Christ was subsequently, 50 years later, given an earthly back story, like one of those shaky prequels created for an already successful TV series. This story in its different versions eventually came to dominate, stories being easier to remember and believe than complex theories about invisible beings.

Did Jesus exist? A rethink.

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Who determined the rules for the early Jesus cult? Jesus himself or the members of the cult? What does the evidence suggest? They all appear in documents written between 40 and 90 years after Jesus died. Either they survived from the moment the words left his lips, remembered accurately by generations of believers or they were included in the gospels by the cult communities that created them.

I’ve written before about how much of the Bible was written backwards (so to speak) and the gospel’s cult rules look likely to have been developed in just this way. The cult members had, by the time the gospels came to written, established these rules for their communities. They had shaped a Jesus that suited their purposes; it has long been recognised that the creators of Matthew’s, Luke’s and even John’s gospel took Mark’s account and amended it significantly. Their depiction of Jesus, his teaching and the resurrection are amended to reflect their particular beliefs and community rules. How do we know this?

Richard Carrier, the so-called mythicist (he actually says there’s a 1 in 3 possibility of the historicity of Jesus; figures as mythologised as Jesus rarely existed in fact) demonstrates how Mark’s gospel is an allegorical story based on Paul’s teaching. Mark created a well constructed narrative designed, literally, to flesh out the spiritual being that Paul imagined he’d seen in his visions. Using Jewish and pagan myths to structure it, he incorporates Paul’s visions and ‘revelations’ to create his Jesus story. To take one example, Paul relates in 1 Corinthians 11.23-25 how his celestial Christ told him in person (i.e. in his head) how his sacrifice of himself should be celebrated: with bread and wine. Mark turns this into an actual meal supposedly shared between Jesus and his early followers: the Last Supper.

Subsequent gospel writers took Mark’s allegory and amended it both to suit their needs and to correct what they perceived as Mark’s shortcomings. In the process they ‘fleshed out’ still further the figure at the centre of Paul’s (and others’) visions and Mark’s story based on them. Most significantly, they added increasingly elaborate resurrection appearances; it is significant Mark’s gospel has none, as if he knew Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t a physical event but a visionary one exactly as Paul describes.

It seems indisputable that the gospels were written this way (though there are, naturally, those who do dispute it.) None of the gospels rely on a hypothetical oral tradition, which, if it existed, would be extremely unreliable over 50 or so years (the time between Jesus’ supposed ministry and the writing of Matthew’s gospel), nor do they depend on the equally hypothetical Q. In any case, Q, if it existed, was a book of sayings, not a narrative account. Significantly, no copies of what must surely would have been a precious document have survived.

No, Mark made up the story of Jesus based on Paul’s visions (we know others had similar visions before Paul; he tells us so in 1 Corinthians 15.1-8). We know too that subsequent gospel writers built on Mark, adding what suited them, including their particular sect’s rules. What better endorsement of these rules than to have the object of their worship seeming to issue them himself? It’s highly unlikely he did anything of the sort. In 1991 the Jesus Seminar determined, controversially, that only about 20% of the words in the gospels could be attributed to an historical Jesus. All of the rest is made up and put retrospectively into his mouth. (The Seminar nevertheless concluded that Jesus existed.)

From the small amount of Jesus’ teaching that might be attributed to an historical Jesus, to the way the gospels were created, what can be known about a ‘real’ Jesus – what he said and did – grows increasingly small. All we are left with is a ghost of a figure. And isn’t this precisely what Paul claimed he and others had seen?

I’m rethinking my position and I’m coming to the conclusion, based on how the gospels were written, especially the way Mark allegorised Paul’s visions and teachings, that the likelihood of an historical Jesus is slim. Carrier has an abundance of evidence to support his proposal of a 1 in 3 chance that Jesus existed. Certainly the Jesus(es) of the gospels did not exist; they’re all made up. It now seems to me there’s no real, historical Jesus behind any of them.